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California's environmental laws may be aggravating housing crisis

Housing in California isn't cheap -- and it's often hard to find. The population of the state has exploded over the decades and the housing industry is having a hard time keeping up. This forces a lot of residents to endure long commutes -- and high prices -- just to find adequate housing.

So, why aren't more apartments being built? It seems like there's plenty of consumer demand for just about any housing that's offered.

Unfortunately for developers, the state's environmental laws are often being used by people whose feelings toward new housing seem to be best summed up by the phrase, "Not in my backyard!" They may even agree that there is a real housing crisis -- but they're unwilling to sacrifice the luxury of their own natural surroundings to make way for others.

Critics of the state's environmental laws say that they're often used inappropriately by people who object to housing developments -- not because the developments pose any real danger to the environment. A development might block the view someone currently enjoys from a window or his or her backyard. Sometimes they simply don't want the increased traffic a housing development would bring -- and sometimes they don't want rental tenants anywhere near their homes.

Unlike the process in most states, anyone in the public can file a challenge against a construction project based on the idea that it hasn't met the criteria for approval under environmental regulations. Litigants aren't even required to reveal their identities when they file.

This has led to abuses of the system that weren't anticipated. While some complaints are probably genuine and altruistically motivated, the anonymous process permits anybody with an economic agenda to throw a barrier up to a construction project that is both costly and time-consuming. It's been used by construction companies to damage their competitors, by racists who didn't want a development to attract residents of a particular ethnic variety and unions who objected to nonunion labor. On average, environmental groups -- those most motivated to protect the state's natural resources -- are only behind the lawsuits about 13 percent of suits.

It's smart for any developer to make certain that they clearly understand the rules of California's Environmental Quality Act before initiating a project. That's the best way to avoid expensive construction lawsuits and delays down the line.

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